Downwind of Amsterdam
January 2004

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January 27, 2004

Walk through Utrecht

This is getting embarrassing: after Enkhuizen and Haarlem, I've discovered yet another favorite Dutch town: Utrecht.

Note: Sorry some about some of the image download times. Some of these images are complex bandwidth hogs.

Sunday morning, I knew something was terribly wrong. At my desk, in my apartment, I kept squinting, trying to focus on my work. It was driving me crazy, I couldn't figure out what was the problem. Ah. The sun is shining--it hurts my eyes, make it stop. Still, these meteorological anomalies are rare enough, so--down the hatch with lunch, warm clothes on, and out the door toward Naarden-Bussum station.

I walk through Bussum, my village, packed with more statues in a smaller area than I've ever seen. This is two blocks short of the station. I've gotten very used to this guy.

And Bussum is full of surprises, in unlikely places. This tilework is simply there, on a commercial wall, not even particularly visible, though it might have been so when the train line was laid. I know it's just an advertisement, but I find this really quite beautiful.

So I'm at the station. I need a destination on this sunny afternoon. It's after noon, so what's the nearest town I haven't seen? OK, Utrecht. I buy a ticket to Utrecht.

Excellent choice. I had read of a tower in the city center, not far from the station, and as you walk east from there, well, it's rather hard to miss. Believe me, photographs (even this one), postcards, even large posters, cannot do the Domtoren justice. You simply have to see it in person. The taste and detail of its construction are a revelation. Even the locals seem mesmerized by it, and all over downtown one sees photographers of all ages waiting for the clouds to cast just the right light (as I did). Completed in 1382. Very, very impressive.

In the shadow of the Domtoren.

Also in the shadow of the Domtoren, commemorating the fallen in 1940-1945. I've gotten the sense, all over the Netherlands, that the Dutch remain, in their own quiet way, extremely, extremely pissed off at what was done to them.

I found myself walking through the university area on the near north side.

And students mind the rules about the same everywhere, I guess (though why anyone would put a no-bikes sign right over a loop expressly made for bike locks is not obvious). As for as I could tell, Utrecht's penalty for improper bike parking is a (gasp!) blue warning sticker...

...well, usually.

Walking back to the train station through a cozy neighborhood, I heard an odd duck--actually, it turned out to be a decoy, blown maniacally by a bored little girl pushing an empty permambulator down the sidewalk. She saw me about to pass by her, and she blew with all her power, and she waited. I had the presence of mind to remark, "Een klein eensje, geloof ik" (a little duckling, I believe) and she clapped her hands and giggled the rest of the block. We made each other's afternoons.

This stairwell protector looks painful.

And back on the train, from Utrecht Centraal through Hilversum and off at station Naarden-Bussum.

Utrecht is a wonderful city, only a comfortable 20 minutes by train: the same as Amsterdam, and a lot easier to get around, less touristic, and even more photogenic than Amsterdam if that's possible. I'll go back, and right soon.

posted by eric at 21.52 CET | Permalink | Comments (4)

January 23, 2004

Nederlandse Spoorwegen

The time has come to talk about Dutch trains. The Dutch train system, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen, abbreviated everywhere as NS, as are the stations. Most buses in my area run between NS stations and are simply labelled Hilversum NS or Naarden-Bussum NS.

The first thing to know is that the Netherlands train system doesn't change much, that most of it is a century old, and that there have been few if any truly new passenger lines laid down since the 1940s (except of course to Flevoland, an island which didn't exist until more recently).

The second thing to know is that these lines are BUSY. These two trains are passing just north of the Naarden-Bussum station, my home station, by no means a central station.

The signals are modest, and the signal sounds are gentle, modulated, even pleasant. But the trains do scream by.

The Naarden-Bussum station was built in the 1930s, which means the construction is in that blocky brick style that seems brutal now. Trains were high-tech then, and the station master was important in locally, but of course now it is all centrally controlled and computerized. Still, the tilework remains.

The waiting rooms were as segregated as the train cars. With more frequent trains, the waits are shorter now, so there's no longer much of a waiting room--this one is now a koffieshop, spelled in Dutch, not to be confused with "coffeeshop", spelled in English, which in the Netherlands means a place to smoke pot), something to know before you suggest coffee to, oh, say, your visiting parents or your boss. Again, the tilework remains.

And third class waiting room. So, guess which your cheapskate tour guide pays for? Trick question!!!--there's no more third class! The answer: second class. They don't allow your bike in first matter how civilzed it is. [PeeWee Herman laugh]

I took this random picture in the station, and only later noticed the reflections. Most pictures I've taken that include any glass have the same reflections, and these reflections speak a real truth about the Netherlands: whenever you're outside, you are within sight of a hundred windows. Windows are simply everywhere. The villages have eyes. Not a place for claustrophobics.

In my time here, I have bicycled more than I've driven a car, and I've ridden trains more distance than I've bicycled. Try that in America.

posted by eric at 19.23 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 18, 2004

Quick Trip to Haarlem

The first dry weekend day since November! So, off to Haarlem.

All Together Now: "Yes, he lives on a beautiful street." This is a few houses north of my apartment, on the way to the Naarden-Bussum train station.

The station itself, from the south side, the Amersfoort stoptrein pulling out. At the top are the two town emblems...

...Naarden's on the left, Bussum's on the right.

And once you're in a Netherlands train station, this is how you make sure you're in the right place. This signage is fantastically full of information. Departing from this track (2) at 12:03 is the sneltrein (fast train), main destination Alkmaar, stops at Weesp (with connection to Schiphol airport), Amsterdam, etc. The main and occasionally-consulted information (track number and time) in boldface on the two sides, framing more detailed data in the middle. Very easy to read. Right by the book--well done. This (Utrecht-Lelystad) train line is actually a new one this month, the first in the Netherlands in years. Now that it's finished, I hope we have fewer construction delays. We'll see.

More about trains in a few days but now, let's get to Haarlem--on the other side, "upwind" of Amsterdam.

The center of Haarlem is very compressed and tight, even for the Netherlands. There are streets whose width I could almost span with my arms. When I first got there, I thought it was just me...after all I had several strikes against me. (1) I had sat through the movie Black Rain. It's amazing how similar crowded Japan and crowded Netherlands can seem sometimes. Still, I came to Haarlem already primed for claustrophobia.(2) Then at 3 o'clock in the morning, some extremely intoxicated Dutch fellows downstairs decided to howl with Jacques Brel at full volume on their stereo. After an hour I banged on their door and yelled at them in extremely colorful French, and they just stood there. They didn't understand a word M. Brel sang, they just wanted to howl with him. I got my point across anyway and then slept, a little. (3) Hey, it isn't just me--Haarlem is claustrophobigenic, essentially Medieval. If things Medieval don't stifle you, you probably need professional help.

Haarlem is also a very old town, even for the Netherlands. I very highly recommend the Frans Hals museum in Haarlem, the basement of which has a small but incredibly helpful exhibit on life in early Haarlem. Long ago the town had walls and gates, serious ones that could and did withstand sieges. Most citizens never left its walls, not their whole lives, knew no more about the world 100 meters beyond its walls than you know about Mars. The town was less than a kilometer across and probably stank horribly. When the large bell sounded for public events, often executions, all citizens would come to the Grote Markt and pay attention to the balcony at city hall. They all just dropped their work and walked over. No one stayed behind, there was no reason to stay behind--it's not like Amsterdam was going to call on the phone. And no one stayed behind to steal, either, lest he end up next "on the balcony."

After Haarlem surrended to a siege in 1576, the Spanish slaughtered thousands of its citizens. For the next one or two centuries, Haarlem painters over and over painted the Biblical scene "Slaughter of the Innocents".

The environment was problematic for early Haarlem. The water was too stagnant to make beer--a real emergency by any measure, in the Netherlands. They barged fresh water from springs in the dunes, toward the North Sea. Linen refining was so noxious that it was banned from the town, to the dunes. Preferably downwind.

The craftsmanship of early Haarlem--especially painting and silverwork--are beyond belief.

A detail on the Grote Markt, Haarlem's wonderful central plaza.

Three guesses what Haarlemmers do on a sunny winter's Sunday afternoon. Again, on the Grote Markt.

Lovely as Haarlem's points of interest (statuesque and live, both) are, it still gets dark too early for my taste, so it was back to the station and a long ride home, through Amsterdam, then the pleasant walk in near-dark back to my apartment.

A nice, dry afternoon in Netherlands winter--tantamount to a miracle.

posted by eric at 20.20 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 12, 2004

Dutch insurance saves the day

I open my mail, and there's this car insurance renewal. Congratulations, you can drive anywhere you want, EXCEPT...


Glad they got that to me in time--I was just planning a car trip to Baghdad. But, hey! all is not lost--they say it's perfectly all right if I drive straight to Iceland.

Sometimes I don't feel at home on this planet.

posted by eric at 21.23 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 2, 2004

New Year's in Paris

At long last!--Paris for a couple of days, with my friends from America...well, from France and America, or...this is confusing in a sort of jet-set way.

Or in my case a high-speed train way. The Thalys tickets arrive in the mail, I halfway recover from my second US-induced cold in time for a ride through Schiphol, Den Haag, Rotterdam, Brussels (the first time I've been back to Brussels in 4 years--how time flies), and past Charles de Gaulle (OK, Roissy) airport, and detrain at Gare du Nord. A beautiful, cold morning, and I walk, through the Republique, through the Marais and just past the Rue Saint-Antoine to my hotel. Which is overbooked. Thank goodness I had e-mailed my hotel's address to my friends. I'm just getting directions to my new hotel when Georges walks in! First good omen. I drag my bag with Georges and Lois to Ma Bourgogne, a great restaurant in the Place Royale. OK, the Place des Vosges to newcomers. And we begin our first enormous meal without delay. Welcome to Paris--please gain weight. And then I walk the few blocks to my hotel, which turns out to be a properly seedy dive...

...with a very, very Parisian window view. A chance to catch up on sleep and maybe even to get a little bit ahead, not a bad idea when arriving with remnants of a cold and not sure how much sleep our plans will allow for.

I bring wine to a dinner at Georges' and Lois' apartment on an incredibly narrow medieval street near the metro St. Paul, and another couple arrive, friends of Georges'. It was such a joy to converse in French again, the first time in way too long. Georges and his dapper friend wanted to discuss politics (of course), so I ended up conversing for a long time with his lovely wife, who speaks no English. We parted very late, and I walked back to the hotel in the bitter cold, very, very happy.

The next morning I pretty well skip breakfast and sleep in, both smart moves as it turns out. Lunch at Chez Julien on the Seine: a forgettable filet of bar but a wonderful Sancerre to compensate. This requires much of the afternoon. We go to the top of the Bazaar and identify as many landmarks as we can, which for Georges took about an hour, as he had lived and worked in its shadows for decades. Back to the hotel for another nap, and then it is...New Year's Eve!

Encore a table! Bon. Lois' choice of restaurant for New Year's Eve, the cozy, magnificent L'Excuse, highly highly recommended. The food kept coming and kept coming for hours, well past midnight and my sneaking an extra glass of the excellent champagne from Georges and Lois while they smooched in 2004. And an hour and a half at the table past midnight. No problem sleeping for 2004's first night.

New Year's morning: fresh blanket of snow! Paris looks pretty good in snow until it melts. My task this year's first morning: exchange my 11:00 ticket to Amsterdam Schiphol for a 4:00 ticket. Yes, of course--for another big meal. Unfortunately I hike to the Gare du Nord, not far, but the snow turned to slush right while I walked. It was miserable. Exchanging the ticket was easy, and out the Gare's front doors I am accosted by a taxi driver who asks where I'm going. I tell him Station Metro St. Paul (only 30 m from Georges' apt), and he doesn't know where it is. But he offers to look it up and charge me just 30 euros for the trip. I was already walking, almost running away. I find a legitimate driver, and he takes me right there, by the fastest route--7 euros.

Which led to another long, wonderful lunch at Le Bar A Huitres, sort of a joke name, but a great place and a wonderful long lunch. And eventually, goodbyes.

Taxi back to Gare du Nord and a nasty little trick: the Thalys train runs slowly (only 100 miles per hour) when there is ice or slush. They told me that it's no problem with the wheels or the tracks, but that at high speeds, the resulting vacuum pulls in tons of slush and beats hell out of the trains sides.

And the next morning, back home. Not exactly the view from my Paris windows, but, well, home all the same. Bussum with its mundane little worries on the ground...

...and the same skies.

Hurry, summer.

posted by eric at 21.15 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)